Saturday, August 6, 2016

Say Goodbye to, Hollywood

He came into my studio and asked, “Are you ready?  It’s time to go.”  I said “Not quite yet.”  He said “Hurry up please. It’s getting time for me to go.”

The planning that went into my wife Karen and I having our first child surpassed the planning of most space flights. One New Year’s Eve when we could not go to Louisiana we spent it at the home of some close friends, Cheri and Robert.  Karen was so tired she went to bed before midnight which seemed very strange to me.  I was in the kitchen helping Cheri get champagne together for the countdown. She said very nonchalantly, “Are you that clueless?  She hasn’t had a drink all night.  She is very tired. Did it not ever occur to you she thinks she might be pregnant.”  It didn’t because sometimes I’m an idiot.  Cheri was right though and as we found out in the week ahead we were indeed going to have a child.

“How much more do you have to do?  Will you be ready soon?”  I said “I have just a couple of more things to do.”

The night when the water broke I was packing for a trip to a conference.  It was six weeks earlier than expected.  Karen called her best friend and maid-of-honors and said “I’m not sure what’s going on.”  Linda said, “What’s going on is that you’re about to have a baby.  Call your doctor.”   At that time my brother-in-law was living in the garden apartment of our house.  While Karen called the doctor he and I essentially reenacted a classic episode of “I Love Lucy,” running around like chickens without heads. We tried to pack for her.   Karen went with nothing of value except for twelve pairs of underwear.  When I drove into Lincoln Park to the hospital, I suddenly lost my ability to parallel park.  At one point the car was perpendicular to the curb.  She said, “If you lose it on me now, I am going to kill you.”

“I really need for us to go. Will you be ready soon?”

Ben came quickly. He was flipped over in the womb and so had to be adjusted before he could be delivered.  When he was he was very, very small and had a head that looked like the monster in the “Alien’ movies.  I must have had an expression on my face because the nurse said, “Don’t worry he hit his head a lot on his way out.  That will go away soon.”   When he was still in his mother’s belly I used to talk to him a lot and sing to him.  When he was born and after they had cleaned him up, he had not opened his eyes yet, but he was crying loudly.  I went to where they were weighing him on the scale and I said, “Shhh…it’s OK, buddy.”   He stopped crying and started moving his head around and looking for where the sound of my voice had come from.  It was a beautiful moment.

“Can you not go? Do I need to ask someone else to take me?” I said “No I just have to finish this up.”

In the early years we had a lot of fun.  When he was six weeks old my wife went shopping with her aunt, who had come up from Louisiana to see the new baby, the first grandchild.  She took Karen shopping.  I got a little bored so I loaded up a diaper bag, put Ben in my chest carrier, and took the bus to the Cubs game.  In those days you could get bleacher seats cheap after the fifth inning.  All the other fans around us were really nice.  They brought us drinks and fetched his bottle when he dropped it. We sat under the scoreboard out of the sun for the last part of the game.  When my wife called me on my cell phone to ask me where I was and I told her, I thought it might be the first incident of telephonic homicide. Later she and Lisa came and joined us.  It was a fun afternoon. Ben still likes going to Cubs games.

“Maybe Mom should take me.” I didn’t look up. “No, it’s OK, I will. I’ll clean up in a minute and we’ll go. ”

As he grew he became very precocious.  One day we picked up my grandmother from the train and had her come to lunch at our house before she went out to stay with my sister, Melissa. She sat next to my son in his table-attached high chair.  After we had finished eating, he said, “I’m done.” I lifted him out.   My grandmother said, “When I was young you said, ‘May I be excused?’  Without a beat he looked at her and said, “Well I don’t.”  He was always a kind of unique and confident individual.  He liked me to wrap him Christmas tree lights and to read him old programs from the circus. 

The years went by very fast.  We did a lot together when he was younger. We did Indian Guides and father-son weekends, but as I got more wrapped up in work I missed a lot of birthdays, Halloweens and games.  Things you are supposed to do with your son.  I called him from Pittsburgh on his sixteenth birthday.

It wasn’t until just several, but not many, years ago, when I stepped back from work that we developed a close relationship and I got to know him.  He played lacrosse on the varsity team since he was freshman. He told me that some day he might want to get into filmmaking, so I started calling him Hollywood.  He started borrowing books, watching classic movies and coming to talk to me about them. He was there for me when my grandmother died, and he was with me during the whole time when I lost my father.  I was there for him when he was disappointed or lost certain things or people.

He came out and laughed “Really, when will you be ready to go?" I went up to shave and clean up, and I thought to myself, “I’ll never be ready.”

When he first went off to college, and I was still working in the city, Ben, and I would have long lunches at least once a week.  When I started working out of the house and he got his first student apartment, made friends and got a pretty serious girlfriend from California, we started only visiting each other if I went to see him, or he came home to visit alone or with friends.  I started missing him sorely.

When I finished cleaning up, I went downstairs and said, “OK, Hollywood, I’m as ready as I’m going to be. Let’s go.”

We had a party for Ben on the night before his 21st birthday. At midnight we drank champagne and all toasted him. Even Meredith at nearly sixteen was allowed to have a sip. His best friends were there with him and some called on the phone from far off places like Los Angeles.  Meredith bought him a book of interviews called Hitchcock on Hitchcock and I could see by the look in his eyes how happy it made him that she had taken her own money and found that for him.  It was a wonderful affair.

In the car Ben said to me, “Are you OK, Dad? You seem awfully serious. “I replied “I’m fine, Hollywood, I’m just thinking about some things.”

We drove to the DMV.  He took his social security card and his old license out of his wallet.  We walked up to the clerk and I said, “He needs to update his license.”  Ben said, “Dad, I can talk for myself now.”  We found a seat in the waiting area and I said “Maybe I should just go walk around and do some things.” Ben said, “Please don’t." There is nothing worse than sitting by yourself in the DMV, so I stayed.  He told me about the summer film internship he had just completed, and the next one he had just obtained.  He told me excitingly about some other projects he was working on, and about how he was looking forward to getting back to the city because Kayla was going to take him out to a “fancy” dinner.  We went and had a short beer at the bar next door, so he could break in his ID, talked a bit, went home, had lunch with his friends from school, and then they got ready to go back to the city. 

Karen came out into the studio with Ben. He hugged me and kissed me good-bye on the cheek. He got into a car and left.  Karen and Meredith went shopping and I did what I always do when Ben leaves. I went into the studio, I played a certain song by Billy Joel, “Say Good-Bye to Hollywood,” and I cried.  I cried a little harder this time.  

Ben is 24 now and lives in LA and I don't see him very much but love his visits and try to talk to him as much as I can. I sometimes connect with Kayla more. He is doing very well for himself with various projects.  I still listen to that song.all of the time because it has been hard to accept that he is now a grown-up and it reminds me of him....the little boy I love. I knew he would leave one day but just as I was unprepared for his birth I was not prepared for him leaving the nest.  This is our joy and curse as being parents.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Stepping Over Logs

My house is surrounded on three sides by water. On the east there is the DuPage River, on the south there is a branch off the river, which then feeds into a creek that is on the west of us.  I like to walk, especially where there are trees, and all of these bodies of water provide me with great opportunities to do this.  I especially like to go to Knoch Knolls woods because there is a wonderful bridge over the river there.  It is a great place to just stand and think.  For the last few days, and even now, there have been a lot of fallen limbs and logs in the paths where I walk.  Some come from the beginning of Fall and recent storms; some are just from culling the city workers are doing.  In any case they make it hard to walk the path.  Today I stood on the bridge and started thinking a lot about my basement and other things, like those logs.

Last spring there was a ferocious storm here in the town where I live.  So much water fell from the shy in such a short time that the gutters and drains could not keep up.  I have a large drain in my backyard and a small one on the curb in front of my house.  Like all of the playgrounds that turned into lakes, my yards were quickly underwater.  My neighbors and I tried to clear the storm drains but it was no use.  Slowly but surely the water crept up to my house and with it came a lot of mud. Eventually there was so much that it broke into the window wells of my basement, and because of the muck, it also clogged the drains in there as well.  It broke out the interior windows, and that’s when the water started coming into the house.   Both the sump and ejector pumps, which I neglected to maintain, burned out and so there was nothing we could do but hope the rain would stop falling.

Since then we have been working on repairing the basement all summer. A couple of times we got more water in before I could fix or replace the pumps.  It seemed like every time we took two steps forward, and were happy, we got thrown three steps back.  Things are moving along now but there is still work to be done.  

Both of my sons, Ben and Matthew, are now in college.  A long time ago I promised my daughter, Meredith, who is still in high school that when the boys went off I would redo the basement for her and her friends.  After years of crazy boys being down there playing video games and hurling lacrosse balls around, not to mention at times fists, at fragile walls, it was her turn to have the basement to herself.  I should have had that project finished by now but I don’t.  For some reason when I contemplate what needs to be done down there I freeze up.  I don’t know why.  The magnitude is not so huge or the complexity of the project all that hard to fathom.  I just haven’t seemed to be able to get motivated to do it.  I have felt paralyzed.  A friend of mine suggested that maybe it is because doing projects like this are a constant reminder that things that were once easy for me to do are now very hard, if not impossible.  He might be right.  He said, “T.S., you just might have to accept that you will need help and do things differently than you used to.”  That is very hard for me.

One day I was driving Meredith to an appointment and I started asking her questions about what she wanted her basement to look like. I said, “Would you like me to take the ceiling tiles out and maybe go with a more industrial look?  She said, “No, I want a ceiling and I want lights.” I asked, “What about the old futon.”  She said, “It needs a new cover.  You also need to fix the window. It gets cold down there.”  I said, “OK, what about the floor?”  She said, “Area rugs would be nice.” I dropped her off and she hugged me.  “Thank you, Tom. You know I love you.” Since she started talking she has always called me by my first name and I don't care. As long as she doesn't say, “I hate you," Tom," I couldn't give a damn what she calls me. 

When I got home I started thinking.  “Maybe there is a way I can do this.  I just have to figure it out.” I went to take my walk.  Along the way I thought about the logs, how they blocked the path and got into the water and kept it from moving, and I also thought about something else related.  

Not long ago one of our relatives, Karen’s aunt, asked me if I would be willing to talk to a friend of her's, Kris, who had just recently been diagnosed with Parkinson's. Kris was really struggling to adapt to this change in her life. I told Aunt Dottie, of course I would talk to her friend, and so I did.  When I reached Kris we talked about a lot of things: what led to our diagnoses, medications, side effects, etc.  At one point she asked me a question.  “Do you ever freeze up?”  I said, “I don’t often now because of the medicine but still occasionally from time to time.”  I told her the story of what happened when I first froze up because I thought it might help.

I used to work in the Gold Coast of Chicago as a VP of Marketing and Public Relations.  When I was first diagnosed my neurologist told me that walking would be good for me, so every day at lunch I tried to take a walk around the neighborhood.  One day as I was working my way down Michigan Avenue not far from the Hancock Building, for no reason, I just stopped.  I stood on the sidewalk, blinking, staring, and wondering what was happening.  My office was not far from Northwestern University Hospital so there were always a lot of medical people out and about at lunchtime too.  A woman in scrubs came up to me.  “Are you alright, sir?” she asked.  I nodded.  “Do you think you might be having a stroke?”  I shook my head. I said, “No, I’m fine. I just seem to have forgotten how to walk.”  

She got me to sit down on the edge of one of the planters on the street.  I told her that I had Parkinson’s and she smiled.  She asked me, “How long?”  I told her it had been only about a month.  She assured me that I hadn’t been on the medicine long enough and I was still adjusting.   She took me by both hands and pulled me up.  She said, “I’m going to teach you a trick.  If this happens again, just focus on a crack in the sidewalk ahead of you, pretend it is a log and that you have to step over it.  Once you do; then keep going forward.”  She had me do it and she was right.  She gave me a hug and then went on her way.  I wish I had the presence of mind to get that woman’s number so I could thank her.  Kris said to me, “I have heard of that trick too.  I’m glad it works.”

I was recently texting with my good friend, Marko.  He sent me a much needed virtual “man-hug.”  We talked about challenges and obstacles we were both facing.  He told me about how he had to put a beloved dog down and how sad it made his wife.  He also told me about how an old injury was bothering him that he thought he might have to have surgery to repair it.  Despite his pain he asked me how I was doing.  I told him that it was always a journey and that logs sometimes get in your path.  I said, “I think you figure out quickly how to step over logs, which maybe is why God put them there in the first place.” He said, "I think that a good thing for me and a lot of other people to think about."

Today on the bridge I thought more about that.  I thought even more about a message my wife sent to me in the morning.  Karen understands the challenges that I am going through in my life, does her best to not get frustrated when I lash out in anger, but also refuses to coddle me. She is a woman of great faith, especially in me.  Out of love she always pushes me to step over the logs. The message Karen sent me basically said, “Challenges, issues, and problems are all about how you respond to them.”  I married a very smart girl.  After I got home I started sketching out a plan.  I know now exactly what I am going to do with the room for Meredith; what I am going to buy; what I am going fix or hang; what couches I am going to move around, and just how I am going to do it all with some help from friends who have offered it.  It feels good. Tomorrow I'll start working through it all…one log at a time.
Whether you are dealing with a chronic illness or just with the everyday challenges, that we all have to deal with, the message is still the same.  We all need to learn how to step over logs or maybe take a new path if that is what is required.  The important thing is that we don’t allow ourselves to freeze up. We have to keep moving forward in whatever positive direction that means for our lives, even if that means asking for a little or lot of help from our loved ones along the way.
Thomas G.M. Sharpe, April 2013

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Christmas Carol (For Garl)

A Christmas Carol (For Garl)

When I was in my late teens and twenties I worked in a mall bookstore.  One December I was working at my charge desk in the art and paperback section with a new girl named Marie when a woman came in looking for a coffee table book to give to a friend for Hanukkah.  I helped her pick out a nice book of Monet prints. As Marie was ringing her up, the woman said, “You know, I don’t really even know when Hanukkah starts. Do you?”  Marie said, “No, I don’t.” I shook my head. Marie looked over by the card section and saw a man picking out several Hanukkah cards.  She went over and asked, “Sir, do you know when Hanukah starts?” He looked up and said, “It’s this Thursday at sunset.”  She told the woman, who thanked us, and then left.  Marie turned to me and said, “It is lucky someone Jewish was here.” I smiled and said, “That man is not Jewish. He is of Anglo-Saxon descent, Protestant, Republican, and works in the corporate world.”  She screwed up her face. “What makes you think that?” I laughed. “I’m just a master of observational detail, Marie, and besides that, he is my father.”  She laughed to and asked, “Why is he buying so many Hanukkah cards?” I smiled and said, “Because he loves this time of year and he likes spreading cheer to all of his friends.”

When my siblings and I were young kids we didn’t see my dad a whole lot. He was trying to climb the corporate ladder and therefore worked late hours and traveled a lot. One thing he always did though was take two weeks off in the summer so we could have a long vacation trip and stay home the week of Christmas and New Years.  During the Christmas break he would go to great lengths to spend time with us. He wouldn’t get in the car to run an errand unless one or two of us were with him. He took us to movies, he pretend cooked with my younger sister, Stacia, and played in the snow with me and my older sister, Melissa. He would nap with my younger brother lying on his chest.

The other thing he would do is go absolutely mad in decorating the house. During Christmas most of our places looked like a Hallmark store vomited. There were copious lights on the outside of the house, Christmas knick-knacks everywhere, trains running around trees, and snowflakes painted on all the windows. It would have been highly gaudy and tacky but my mother, who was a talented artist, always followed him around and made sure everything looked tasteful.  Over time he learned some lessons and got very good at it. Even when I was older, moved to Champaign and then later got married and moved to Chicago, I loved visiting my parents’ house in December because it said Christmas all over it.  

My father also went to great lengths to make sure we believed in Santa as long as possible. He would make shoe prints in the snow and on the roof towards the chimney.  If we were traveling back to Florida where we once lived and did presents at my grandparents in Indiana on the way, he would leave the front room in the dark, stomp on the back kitchen steps yelling “Ho, ho, ho!” and ring bells, only to emerge in the front room after we retrieved our presents from the landing.

Church was a big part of our Christmas experience. Every year we would go to evening services on Christmas Eve.  When we were younger my father always held the role of a shepherd in the Nativity play because he could not sing but was good at herding fake sheep.  When Melissa and I went off to college we started going to the late night service and after that my father would host a big open house for the neighbors. He always wore some decorative sweater or vest he had purchased for the occasion.  During the season we would also go to the annual Bryson Christmas Party. The Brysons were like an extension of our family as they were to many friends. At those affairs my Dad would stand beside the piano and try to sing carols along with everyone else.  He made a good choice of being a shepherd.

One of Dad’s other Christmas obsessions was watching every single version of “A Christmas Carol” ever made. And by that I mean every version.  I came home from work one time and he was in his big chair in the family room watching Mr. Magoo’s version of the Dickens classic. I said, “Dad, what the hell are you doing watching a cartoon? “ He did not move his eyes from the TV.  He said, “I really like this one. I think people undervalue Magoo. This really shows his amazing range as an actor.” I just rolled my eyes and went to my room.

Later on in life, after my mother died, I made it a point to get tickets every year to “A Christmas Carol” at the Goodman Theater, so my wife and I could give Dad a gift.  He loved it. One year I couldn’t get tickets so instead I took him to another Christmas-themed show. He liked being taken out to dinner, and seemed to enjoy the play. As I walked him out to his car, after a post-show drink, I said, “I’m sorry, Pop, that I couldn’t get tickets at the Goodman this year.”  He patted me lovingly on the cheek and said, “That’s OK, Bud, but try harder next year,” and he winked.  I made sure I had tickets to “A Christmas Carol” early every year after that., up until he got sick.

My father was also an amazing gift giver.   The first Christmas my future wife, Karen, spent with us he bought her a fake poinsettia, because she loves them and he thought it would something to spruce up her room at her parents' house. The next year, when it was apparent that we were serious, and probably going to get married, he bought her a beautiful dress that was just the right size. In subsequent years he bought her other clothes and pajamas that all always fit.  I was always kind of shy about buying women clothes, but my father never was. He always was good at shopping clothes for women. I asked him once how he did it. He said, “If you get to get to know a woman well enough, you learn her tastes. If you hug a woman enough, you learn her size." That was a lesson I really liked learning.  The next year I bought Karen a glen plaid suit that she really liked, and it fit just right.

Dad’s birthday is December 19th. There were times that it got overshadowed with the holidays but he never seemed to mind.  He was too wrapped in Christmas. Another movie he loved was “A Christmas Story,” When he turned sixty I bought him a Red Ryder bb gun with a compass in the stock. You would of thought I bought him a Mercedes-Benz. When he opened it he exclaimed with glee, “Oh, boy! Will you look at that!” He had never had one.

When he turned seventy I started giving him money for his birthday equivalent to his age. He would always send me a nice note that said, “Thank you and I love you, Bud” and he would tell me what he spent it on.  The last Christmas with him sitting on my older sister's couch, holding his shaking hand, watching football on TV, and, of course portions of "A Christmas Carol." That year he gave me the last of his father’s pocket watches. I already had two and this completed the set of three. I was very glad for  his generosity but it also made me sad because it felt some sort of harbinger.

He would have been 81 this year if he had lived, but sadly he didn’t.  He left us five years ago.. He died of complications from Parkinson’s and dementia.  It would be in the next year after he passed that I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. We don't know if there is a genetic link or it was just an amazing coincidence.  I jokingly like to say that my father gave me one last gift, “The gift that keeps on giving.”   Although that sounds snarky, the reality is that getting Parkinson’s really ended up truly being a gift in some ways. It forced me to turn my head away from blind ambition and other things, and to focus on what is most important to me: my faith, my friends and family, my art and writing, my community and the world.  I think I’m a better man than I was four years ago.

I try to do my best to keep Christmas like my Dad did. Every day as I work, and spend a little time decorating my home, I try to take time either at lunch or just before bedtime to watch some version of “A Christmas Carol.” I don’t have to shell out $81 this year, but I’ll you what. I would spend 1,000 times that if I could spend another Christmas with that lovely man, Garl Murdock Sharpe…My dad who loved Christmas.